Holding tightly to the rope, James was surprised when his feet hit something solid not more than a few seconds into his descent. He'd expected to be dropping from the ceiling; a minimum of forty or fifty feet above the floor level of the labyrinth proper. Instead, he felt his feet touch down almost right away, and didn't understand why.
It was hard to understand why. It was dark. Inside the ceiling of the real world office had been dark, but here, it was *dark*. The portal that he'd come out of was a rectangle of pale grey light, alien and unnatural in the oppressive blackness, and there were green and red and blue LEDs off in the distance, like a field of colored stars around him, but James couldn't see much of anything else.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, guiding him to a standing position. "Step this way." He heard Dave say, and did so. As he did, James felt the ground shift under him, and almost panicked; his fist clenching around the rope and tugging on it briefly. "Careful." Dave said blandly, which got an unseen roll of the eyes from James. But he caught his balance, let the rope hang free, and took a few steps forward, trying to get his eyes to adjust.
A few feet ahead, Alanna clicked a flashlight on, and James regretted letting go of the rope.
The 'floor' that he'd touched down on was the texture of a ceiling tile.
As their tank swept the beam of light around them, James caught sight of the edge. It was maybe three feet behind him; when he'd landed, he'd hit one foot on the floor, and one on the nothingness below. A series of vine-like wires climbed out of the corners of the platform they were on, holding it suspended in... air? There was a moment there where James heart fell, and he thought that they might have just fallen into an entirely different dungeon altogether. But then, as Alanna kept sweeping the flashlight around, it startled a flock of loose printer paper that had been nesting up here.
Hundreds of white sheets took to the sky, fluttering around them like bats. James held up his hands, trying to knock them away from his face, but he felt a least one brush past in a painful fleshy hiss of a paper cut across his cheeks. In the illumination of the flashlight, it looked visually like a column of static; white shapes briefly there then covered by shadow again, endlessly fluttering by. The rustling noise drowned out everything else while it surrounded them. And then, just like that, the flock was gone, and they were alone again.
"Holy shit." Alanna spat out the words along with a piece of soggy paper. She brought a hand covered in a fingerless glove up to her face, and rubbed along a thin red line that had been left just under her eye. A wince and a snarl ended that check. "What the fuck was all that?"
"Paper." James said back softly in the still again air. "That was one of the paper flocks. Guess this is where they roost. So... we are up in the ceiling?" As he spoke, he edged farther away from the edge, his hands held out to the sides to keep his balance as the false floor under him wobbled. His eyes were starting to adjust, and he wasn't going to accidentally walk over the edge, but James was surprisingly uninterested in taking chances with heights.
From over on the edge, showing absolutely no reservation about the fact that he was an untold distance over the actual stable floor, Dave called out to them. His voice slightly muffled by the fact that he was physically hanging over the edge. "Hey, there's light down here!"
"Fantastic." James said, honestly enthused, but still not quite willing to leave his place at the center of the platform. If he closed his eyes and lost the small amount of vision he had in the dark here, he could pretend it was stable here. The last three minutes had been a hell of a learning experience for James; he was coming to discover, through legs that wouldn't respond to commands and a heart that was pounding harder than it ever was during any of their fights. "I... um... I'll just wait here. You check out the light. I'm just gonna... sit down."
Alanna came over and tossed her duffle next to where James had dropped his. "You doing okay?"
"Not even a little bit, no." James said with gasp of breath. "I didn't realize how bad this would be." He spoke too quickly, anxiety pouring words out of his mouth. "Holy shit, we're high up. Why can I feel how high up we are? Why am I afraid of heights?"
She grabbed him by the shoulders. "You've never been off the ground, have you?" Alanna asked without malice.
"Yeah, that's why. You get used to it." She shrugged, trying to reassure him without being patronizing. "The first time I had to work on a roof, I threw up on the guy on the ladder. I can't really give you any advice, just that you'll be able to move once your brain catches up with the fact that you weren't going to fall over anyway." James nodded, trying to steady his breathing, and waved Alanna away. He'd get used to it, and be fine. She nodded at him, checking over her shoulder to make sure he wasn't having too bad of a panic attack as she went over to check in with Dave. "Hey. You see anything?" She asked, panning the flashlight beam to the side so it wouldn't blind him.
Dave pulled himself back from where he was laying down and peering over the edge, shuffling back on his stomach and moving to a kneeling position. "There's a line of light down there."
There was a pause as Alanna waited for a further explanation. When it wasn't forthcoming, she made a gesture to spur Dave on, before realizing that he probably couldn't see it in the dark. She thought about asking for clarification, but then realized it would be easier to just check. Leaning over the side, it became pretty clear what Dave meant.
The line of light was the sharp white of a fluorescent. A straight line in the darkness, with a pair of thin ninety degree diversions. A silhouette outline of a rectangle; or part of one at least. Alanna waited for her eyes to adjust for another minute, and as the shapes started to resolve, it became clear what she was looking at.
More ceiling tiles. More of the suspended chunks of floor that they were standing on, layered repeatedly over the floor. From the way the light shone through, Alanna guessed they were maybe three levels up.
She sat back up. "Okay, we're gonna have to go down. Do we have any road flares in one of the bags?"
"I'm in favor of getting off this thing." James called from the center. "It's the descent I'm worried about."
Dave rolled his eyes, and even though Alanna couldn't see it, she *felt* the sarcasm rolling off of the guy as he unzipped a duffel bag and pulled out one of the two road flares. As he uncapped it, and tried to strike the end to lighting, Alanna averted her eyes, not wanting to be blinded.
Sweeping her vision around while Dave played with the flare, she noticed something worrying. "James." She called behind her. "James, get up. Some of those LEDs in the distance are moving." The little red, blue, and green lights off in the distance that shone like stars in the inky black of this space were, indeed, bobbing and shaking from side to side. And due to the brightness, Alanna had legitimately no idea if they were moving closer or not.
It was when James spoke that a spark of fear took root in Alanna's chest. She wasn't used to being afraid; unlike James, who took his worries and panic, and burned them as fuel for his Han Solo-style frantic actions in combat, Alanna always stayed calm. She could survive a fight, if she kept her head. She could kill a monster, if she didn't give in to fear. But when she heard James confidently and curiously say, "Weird. It feels like those are getting closer. Can you see the silhouettes they're casting?", that was when Alanna started to worry.
Because there were only so many things that she felt like the dungeon would spawn up here in the ceiling.
Alanna extracted a crowbar from the bag. "James! Time to move!" Her friend seemed to make the connection and break out of his fear of heights pretty quickly. Though he still crawled toward her, rather than walk; making it to the open duffel bag and rustling through for a hunting knife. A poor substitute for his trusty hand axe, just as the crowbar was a mediocre stand in for Alanna's warhammer. "What the fuck are those?" Alanna demanded of him as he knelt next to her, keeping himself alert.
"I bet you two shares it's spiders." James said, half-joking, half-resigned to the inevitable horror.
"Are we doing shares this time?" Alanna asked back, keeping herself outwardly calm. She had an image to maintain, as the bulwark of the group, and while this whole place felt threatening and hostile far in excess from the 'usual' dungeon, it wasn't going to be enough to crack her. "I thought this was kind of off the books."
James snorted next to her. "Anesh'll ask for the numbers anyway. I think he's literally addicted to accounting."
He probably would, Alanna thought. Anesh was really taking to the role of group scribe with a little more enjoyment than any human should have. She had this worry that he was actually deriving joy from accounting software, which was never a good sign. "Well, no bet, anyway. It's..." Behind them, Dave finally sparked the flare to life, casting a sudden and powerful red glow over the space around them. Eyes adjusted fast, and James at least was thrilled to be able to see the floor again from more than just a small beam from a maglite. But, the light also showed off something else in front of them. Ahead of James and Alanna was another oversized ceiling tile, suspended on those same viney cables at just over head height. And underneath it, crawling on the red-shaded speckled tile, was a spider. "...always spiders." Alanna finished.
The spider was the size of a German shepard. As the flare lit up the surroundings, the light pushed back the gloom that surrounded the LED that was it's central eye; the sharp blue light that had seemed so far away a second ago suddenly a lot closer as it was dimmed in comparison to the red glow. Spider may have been the wrong word for it, too, though that was the first place that James and Alanna's minds went, followed by the word 'fuck' repeatedly. It only had six legs. Or maybe twelve, held in unsplit pairs. If it weren't moving, they may not have even seen it, because its legs looked like just triangular shards of the same material as the ceiling itself. The body was the same way; just a few wedges of probably-beige material layered on each other, holding up a head that appeared more like the area behind James' desk than a face. A flat surface, the head was, with dozens of cables coming out around the edge in loops, like finely coiffed hair. The single glowing light in the center was the only thing that gave away that this thing was more than just a statue.
Well, that and the sudden burst of motion as it started crawling forward. The tips of its legs stabbing into the soft tile above it with sharp popping noises.
And then the light vanished as Dave tossed the flare down one level, leaving only a very low flickering red light coming up from over the edges.
"Oh, fucking thanks, Dave!" James yelled.
From behind them, there was a confused, "What? What did I do?", from Dave, but there was no time for James to get too angry, as a second later, the spider dropped down from the ceiling and he had to shuffle backward to avoid being stabbed by it.
From the right, Alanna came in at it with the crowbar, arm muscles rippling as she swung the solid bar of metal fast enough that it was a blur in the low light. James backed off to give her space to smash the monstrous spider, but had his expectations crushed when her strike *bounced off* the shell.
"Oh, *fuck*." Alanna rasped out, the impact vibrating through her bones. The thing felt like it was made out of solid rock; so much for it being ceiling tile. Before she could panic about this turn of events, it jerked forward, striking out with one of its legs that split in two down the middle as it moved, forming an increasingly hostile fork. Its head tilted to the side like it was examining her curiously, almost looking like a puzzled dog more than an inorganic nightmare.
Alanna sidestepped the first stab, and the second one that came after she tried to smash its face in again. The tips bristling with small barbs every time it stabbed. It may have moved quickly, but it seemed to need to plant its feet before it attacked, which made the spider predictable and slow. The only danger was that she could barely see it. A problem that was rectified as Dave swept the light over the skirmish, and let out a reactive yell. Still, it gave her the light she needed to dodge.
Or it would have, if she'd known about the second one that was about to slam into the platform beside her. But James had seen it. He'd caught it in the corner of his eye when Dave had run over, flashlight waving around. It had been lying in wait above them for who knew how long, and now was when it chose to make a move; when Alanna engaged and vulnerable. Maybe they thought that she was the only threat in the group. Their mistake, James planned to punish them harshly for that.
He'd started moving as soon as he'd seen the second spider. There was no time for fear of heights when death was on the line. An almost as soon as it landed, he turned his sprint into a slide, and his boot connected with the side of its 'body'. He didn't intend to actually break it, no. But he did catch it before it could sink its barbs into the floor they were standing on, and it wasn't nearly heavy enough to stop James from booting it right over the edge, and into the reddish gloom below.
"Run!" He yelled at Alanna and Dave, as the first spider paused in its uncanny way to slowly tilt its face back and forth between the three of them, and its missing companion.
James led the way, his stomach a sinking rock as his feet rhythmically brought him closer to the edge of the world. He curved his angle of approach just enough to buy himself time to see exactly *where* the flare Dave had dropped had landed, and then, before he could think too hard about what he was doing, kicked off the wobbling not-ground beneath his feet, and wildly flailed his arms as he plunged the twenty feet down to the platform below.
The next three noises that Dave and Alanna heard as they followed after him were a thunk, a scream, and a scraping crunch. But the other spider was right behind them, there was no time to consider any other options. There was barely enough time for Dave to grab the duffle bag on the way past, a coil of rope and a bottle of water spilling out of it as he lugged it over the edge first. Alanna similarly kicked the first bag off as she jumped right behind Dave.
When they hit the next platform with heavy thuds, setting the whole thing in motion, they saw James, still scrambling to his feet, and a series of gouges in the soft material of the swaying ground. He stumbled up unsteady, but whatever had been waiting down here had gotten the unexpected boot when James had landed into it. This one was smaller than the other had been, and it was cramped enough that it felt awkward moving with other people on it.
But they were a team. Without speaking, Dave grabbed the other flare out of his bag, tossing the second one onto the floor. None of them wanted to be plunged back into darkness. While he did that, Alanna grabbed the flashlight that he'd pitched down and started panning it around, checking for more spiders, and also over the edges of this panel to see where they could jump down to next.
From here, she spotted the more 'natural' white light of a fluorescent bulb from under the next platform. It was brighter, closer, than the slim line of light had been before. Coming from underneath the next platform down. "Dave! Here!" She pointed the light, and Dave, carrying a newly lit flare, ran over and flung it down to give them a target. This one was farther, maybe twenty five feet. "Get the bags!" She told him as she looked around for her own duffel, finding it unpleasantly missing.
What she did spot was that James was crouched in the middle of the platform again. And for a second, Alanna worried that her friend -boyfriend?- was having another moment of panic, this time in the middle of a fight. But then she saw him pull the pressure gun out of the duffel bag, load one of the metal spikes into it, and start holding down the button to fill the chamber with propellent.
The spear gun they'd made was, at its core, just a potato gun. A tank of fuel attached via sealed tube to a piece of pipe that could have a projectile loaded into the end of it to be launched via 'controlled' explosion. Though James had learned from the previous attempts, and the internet, and this one was less a "gun" and more a "cannon". The fuel tank was ten cubic feet of acetylene, and the projectile had been upgraded from 'test potato' to 'sharpened piece of rebar'.
So, when the next spider landed on the platform behind Alanna, crunching small holes into their temporary ground, James was already prepared to brace the weapon and pull the trigger.
Two pounds of metal nailed the insectile creature at roughly two hundred miles per hour. The weapon would be horrifically inaccurate at anything beyond maybe twenty feet at most, but this was point blank range. It had come down expecting fleeing prey, and what it got was a wickedly sharp steel point jammed through the face plate. James wasn't sure if these things had vital organs, but if they did normally, this one didn't anymore, and the shell of a creature collapsed like a hollow puppet after the spike tore through it.
Then there was more of those popping noises from above them. More LEDs moving in the dark, bobbing and weaving, with no way to tell how close or far the next assailant was. "Shit! Go! Keep going!" Alanna yelled, waving Dave on to get a running start for the next jump. He made the leap while James zipped up the bag and got a good grip on the weapon. "Go!" She yelled at him, and he met her eyes and nodded before taking the same running jump Dave had.
Alanna followed, and felt the air rush around her as she plummeted toward an almost certain pain in her feet. She landed right in the middle of the platform, next to where the flare Dave had tossed was burning itself to white powder. James and Dave had hit somewhere farther back, and that was lucky for them; because this tile was a longer rectangle than the others, stretched out.
And when Alanna landed, it snapped in half.
She had a brief moment to spot the duffel bag she'd kicked over the edge, sitting politely on a platform opposite the one they'd just jumped from and being inspected by one of their arachnid opponents, before she was sliding down the new ramp. Just before she dropped into nothing, a hand caught her by the back of her shirt, and she looked up to see James looking down at her as the material started to rip. His eyes went wide as she slipped, and then her arm came up and he traded his grip to her wrist, barely keeping himself held on the now-vertical hanging platform by the spear part of the spear gun he'd stabbed into it.
"Hold on!" He yelled, uselessly.
Alanna wanted to say something snarky, but she was too busy looking up at where more of the spiders were crawling down the cord that Dave was hanging onto. She looked down, and saw an outline against the light. One more platform and they'd at least have some better sight. "Let go!" She contradicted James.
He only hesitated for a moment, and then his trust in her kicked in, and he gave a nod and a firm frown, before releasing her.
She slid down, and landed no more than ten feet on the final platform in the dark. Dave came down next, having dropped from higher up, if the thud was any indication. Seemed like he enjoyed the spider things even less than she did.
James teetered on the edge of this new platform when he landed, windmilling his free arm before catching the vine that held it up. He realized at the same time that Alanna did then that they hadn't actually seen what the hell these platform vines actually *connected to*, and now that they'd jumped down several levels of them, it became clear that they didn't seem to actually attach to anything else.
Still, the platforms stayed up, so James just chalked it up to "dungeon bullshit".
"Okay, there's more platforms down there." Dave said from the side. "The one on the right looks closest. They're all lit up, too."
Alanna caught her breath from where she'd been winded in the last jump. "Good." But before they made the leap, she looked up to see the trio of spiders above them navigating around the wrecked oversized ceiling tile and trying to find a way down. "But how do we get to the *ground*? Can you see anything?"
Dave just shook his head, a grim look on his face. It was James who patted her on the shoulder and said, "Doesn't matter. We don't have enough harpoons to kill too many of those, so we've gotta keep going anyway. We'll work it out when we get there. We've got rope, right?" He addressed the question to Dave, who nodded. "Okay, so we just buy some time, tie off a rope on one of these, and... climb down... forty feet to the floor. Yeah. Good plan, everyone. Now fucking jump!" He yelled that last part as one of the triangular spiders crawled over the edge of a separate platform to their left and began making its way toward them upside down and just over head height.
One last trip through the air. One more ankle jarring impact on the ground. James landed in a kneeling position this time, try to get used to making these falls, and it sort of worked to mitigate the damage. As he stood up, he blinked away the bright light that came from the insanely powerful fluorescent office lighting that was set in the platform directly above them. It wasn't every one of the platforms at this level, he noticed as his eyes adjusted, just a few of them. But it was lit here, and he could feel the wafting breeze of cubicle farm air conditioning.
Inside had never felt like such a breath of fresh air.
Dave ruined his moment by crashing into him from behind when he landed. Alanna hit slightly to the side, and James remembered that they were still high enough up that he should worry about falling. Stifling the fear in his chest for a minute, and grabbing one of the support cords, he looked up, eyes scanning for pursuit.
But it seemed that whatever the hell those things had been, they hadn't been at all interested in coming down after them. James saw a single green LED near where one of the ropes went up toward the darkness, and could just barely make out the shape of a spider still lurking in the gloom. But after a staring contest with the thing, he realized something with a laugh. "They won't come into the light!" James barked out with relief. "Holy shit, they can't deal with the bright light. Or maybe fluorescent. Whatever. They aren't coming down." He collapsed into a sitting position, and then lay back against the speckled tile, taking deep breaths. "Fuck, who the hell decided *that* was what the dungeon needed?" He asked no one in particular.
"What else would the dungeon find in an office ceiling?" Dave asked, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"Dude, I don't know. I think I'd rather fight animated HVAC than those things. Wait, fuck, what if they *were*..." James started to ponder that, but didn't get far.
Alanna cut him off. "Hey, bicker later. Check this out." She pointed over the edge, and after James tilted his head up to see, he rolled over and crawled to join her and Dave where they stood looking down.
More platforms. But few enough that they could see the ground from here. From above, the glimpses that they could get showed them cubicle after cubicle in perfect, ordered rows. Even where it started to get weird with the geometry, James realized, there was a pattern and order to the madness. From above, it made total sense, the insane layouts. There were sweeping hallways and open areas, and he could see multiple spaces where Decision Trees popped out over low walls. And nearby, so very nearby, a spire of blue and white tile that marked the bathroom that he and Anesh had seen so long ago.
There was motion below, too. Perhaps they'd simply never noticed before how much life there was in the dungeon, but from here, James could see. And he wanted to see. So much so that he picked a slightly lower platform, and took a five foot hop down to get a better vantage. Here, a tumblefeed rolled over low walls. There, small dots that were striders or iLipedes moved through a hallway. Off to the side, James got a headache as he tried to process how there could be a wall that was a full support wall, going all the way up to the ceiling, and yet, did not reach the ceiling. And along that wall, following its curve, a pair of paper pushers herded a maul cart forward.
Or maybe just a regular mail cart. James didn't know, but he'd never risk it again.
And from here, he could see the curve of the floor, the slope of the whole world as it oh so gently swept upward toward infinity in the shrouded distance.
Everywhere, though, there were small dots of movement. Tiny motions from this far away, but ones that James' eyes picked out in aggregate. There was so much *alive* down in the dungeon, and even from this far up, maybe three or four floors of distance, he could see enough detail to realize one important thing.
"We're on the other side of the bathroom." He muttered to himself. And looking toward it, he realized something else.
A long wall ran across the width of the dungeon on this side of the bathroom. And just as the floor of the office sloped upward on this side, so too did it do the same on the other. A contained infinity, where his vision couldn't reach. But he knew that out there on the other side was where their exit was. And he could also see how the wall was shaped; it was another one of those actual-wall-walls. He and Alanna had run into a couple of them when they'd been on their delve together. And at the time, James hadn't questioned how they'd gone up to the normal-height ceiling above them, and then stopped.
That was probably the point. Because now, he could see that they came all the way up to this ceiling, but didn't actually meet any ceiling, and oh boy did that hurt his brain. Humans weren't meant to think in more than three dimensions of space. So he blinked and looked away, but focused on the fact that some of those walls had doors set in them.
Because so far, while the dungeon had been an utter bastard about a lot of things, it still seemed to have roughly equal metaphorical weight for things that had real world analogues.
James looked up to where Dave and Alanna were peering over the platform above him. "Hey. Who wants to go have a chat with management?" He called up with a grim smile.
Support "The Daily Grind"
Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!